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Walk down the dog food aisle of any large pet-supply store, or peruse the shelves at your local pet food shop, and you can quickly become overwhelmed. This is especially true for new puppy owners, and probably even more so for first-time puppy owners. When did it get so complicated? In years past, dog food options were far more limited, and even the most responsible dog owners didn’t worry too much about what went into their dog’s dish. They bought what was on the shelf at their grocery store and fed it to their puppy.

Choosing your puppy’s first food may seem more involved today, but that’s a good thing. Higher quality ingredients with better sourcing and specialized formulas can lead to overall better health for growing puppies. To help you navigate, it’s key to have a basic understanding of a puppy’s special nutritional needs.

All puppies are unique, so if you have any concerns or questions about your puppy’s food, feeding schedule, or nutritional health, always consult your breeder or veterinarian—that’s what they’re there for.

One of the most common puppy feeding questions a new owner might have is, “How long should I feed puppy food?” Here’s a basic timeline for what your puppy needs at each stage of their first year of life.

Feeding Your Puppy: A First-Year Timeline

  • 6–12 weeks: Growing puppies should be fed puppy food, a diet specially formulated to meet the nutritional needs of puppies for normal development. Feeding your puppy with adult dog food will rob your puppy of important nutrients. Four feedings a day are usually adequate to meet nutritional demands. Large breed puppies should be fed unmoistened dry puppy food by 9 or 10 weeks; small dogs by 12 or 13 weeks.
  • 3–6 months: Sometime during this period, decrease feedings from four to three a day. A puppy should be losing their potbelly and pudginess by 12 weeks. If they are still roly-poly at this age, continue to feed puppy-size portions until their body type matures.
  • 6–12 months: Begin feeding your puppy twice daily. If your puppy is spayed or neutered during this timeframe, it’s important to note that altering lowers your puppy’s energy requirements slightly. If they’ve had this procedure, switch from nutrient-rich puppy food to adult maintenance dog food. Small breed puppies can make the switch to adult food at 7 to 9 months; larger breeds at 12, 13, even 14 months. Err on the side of caution: Better to be on puppy food a little too long than  for not long enough.
  • After age 1: Most owners will choose to feed adult dogs their daily amount of food split between two meals.

How Much Food Should I Feed My Puppy?

There’s a saying among dog people: Watch the dog, not the dish. Body condition, not the amount of food your puppy has eaten or left in the bowl, should determine your puppy’s portion sizes. Portion sizes depend on individual metabolism and body type, and nutritional requirements vary from dog to dog. If your puppy occasionally skips a meal or picks at food, don’t worry. It could mean they are ready to eliminate a feeding or that you have given them too much, in which case you can simply reduce the quantity served at future meals.

Also, if you are using treats to work on training with your puppy, adjust the amount you feed at mealtime accordingly. Whenever training with treats, keep the treat as small as possible.

How Often Should I Feed My Puppy?

Like human babies, puppies start out needing many small meals a day, made from a food that’s been formulated for their special nutritional requirements. Four feedings per day is a common guideline. Most, but not all, puppies will finish meals quickly. To discourage picky habits, feed at regular times in regular amounts and don’t leave food down for more than 15 minutes.

Is It Worth Buying Expensive Puppy Food?

A well-formulated, so-called “premium” or “super premium” puppy food should have high nutritional density, so while it may be more costly per pound than another food, you should be able to feed your puppy less to achieve the same results as a lower-cost brand. (The resulting poop should be smaller, too!) Also, these foods should have stable ingredient profiles; the composition of bargain puppy food brands can vary from batch to batch.

Major dog food companies invest heavily in product development and research, constantly upgrading dog food formulas to keep up with competitors. This means that feeding a high-quality, premium puppy food puts you on the cutting edge of canine nutrition.

Should I Feed My Puppy Dry Food, Wet Food, or Both?

Many pet food companies have worked with canine nutrition scientists to develop special puppy food formulas for large-breed puppies and puppy food formulas for small-breed puppies.

  • Canned puppy food is the most expensive kind of puppy food to feed, and puppies often find it most palatable. You should choose a complete and balanced wet food to fulfill all of your puppy’s nutritional requirements, which could include meat as well as other ingredients like rice.
  • Dry puppy food, or kibble is the most economical way to feed your puppy, and the major dog food brands offer a complete and balanced diet for puppies of all sizes and dogs of all ages. Dry food can be fed exactly as it comes from the bag. Kibble can be moistened with warm water or unsalted broth. Although unnecessary, it may make kibble more appealing as puppies get used to eating it.
  • Other types of puppy food options on the market include freeze-dried puppy food, dehydrated puppy food, fresh puppy food, and raw puppy food. You should consult with your veterinarian and your breeder to talk about the potential benefits and drawbacks of feeding these alternative forms of puppy food to your puppy.

Food for Big Puppies & Little Puppies

Small-breed dogs and large-breed dogs have some different nutritional needs, and that’s especially true while they are puppies. Adult dogs who weigh less than 20 pounds are considered small-breed dogs. These puppies grow quickly and may reach adulthood by 9 months. Large-breed puppies (20 pounds and up), grow more slowly—it takes anywhere from 15 to 24 months to reach full size and maturity.

Chart Your Puppy’s Weight and Growth

  • As your puppy grows, you can track their progress in a simple notebook or a more sophisticated spreadsheet. Weigh the puppy weekly and record their progress, comparing them to breed-appropriate weight charts. Adjust your puppy’s food intake to achieve an average rate of growth.
  • Weighing a dog, even a squirming puppy, is an important tool to track their growth. An easy way to weigh a squirmy puppy who hasn’t learned to stay still for a weigh-in yet is to first weigh yourself, then weigh yourself while you’re holding the puppy. Subtract the difference—that’s the puppy’s weight.
  • Don’t worry about an ounce or two either way; no two dogs, even within breeds, are built exactly alike.
  • A young dog carrying too much weight has an increased risk of orthopedic problems, due to stress on immature joints. Obesity in dogs can also lead to diabetes, diseases of the heart and other organs, and general lethargy.

Should I Feed My Puppy People Food or Table Scraps?

Your puppy will no doubt quickly learn just how effective their puppy dog eyes can be. One little French fry will invariably lead to another, and another. Before long, too many French fries leads you to an overweight dog crowding you off the couch. Also, a steady diet of table scraps can create a nutritional imbalance, and certain ingredients in your favorite dishes can cause upset stomach, or worse, toxicity, in dogs. (Plus, begging at the table might be a behavior you don’t want to encourage.)

The pleading gaze of a begging dog can be irresistible. This is no accident. During dogs’ long partnership with people, they have perfected cunning methods of exploiting the human habit of associating food with affection. In prehistoric times semi-domesticated canines first cultivated human beings as a food provider. As the two species grew closer, dogs modified begging behaviors to maximize results: The more pathetic a dog seemed, the more scraps were tossed his way. Dogs have since refined this approach into a low-risk, high-reward hunting technique. Pretty genius, right?

But don’t be fooled: Begging is not an emotional crisis or a test of your love. It’s what scientists might call an evolutionary survival strategy, or what the rest of us might call a scam. Allowing your dog to guilt you into overfeeding them, or serving them a steady diet of table scraps in a misguided show of affection, can harmful results in modern times. Your dog no longer needs to beg for table scraps to survive, so help them thrive by limiting their bonus portions to times when they are working for training rewards or as treats for other positive or welcome behaviors.

Puppy Feeding Tidbits

  • Feeding your pup the moment you get home may encourage puppy separation anxiety. Play, grooming, or a calm and relaxed entrance can be more constructive ways to say hello.
  • When medically necessary, and in puppies, usually for gastrointestinal or digestive concerns, you can purchase veterinary prescription diets. Prescription dog food diets are often used for dogs with kidney disease, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious conditions. These foods should never be fed to any dog or puppy without a prescription.
  • Some vitamin or mineral supplements, when utilized incorrectly can do more harm than good. Speak with your veterinarian and your breeder before adding vitamin or mineral supplements to your puppy’s diet, especially if you have a large-breed puppy.
  • Before making a major change in your puppy’s diet, consult with your veterinarian and, when possible, your breeder. Once your puppy’s food formula is chosen, stick with it. Sudden changes in food may cause digestion problems or diarrhea.
  • Small portions of carrot, apple, or green beans are healthy, low-calorie snacks that most puppies will try.
  • Fresh water should be available at all times. During the summer months, consider setting up multiple indoor/outdoor water stations. To avoid a buildup of bacteria and biofilm, wash your puppy’s water bowl daily.

How to Switch from Puppy Food to Adult Food

When switching from puppy food to adult food, you should make the switch gradually over a period of a few days. A sudden change in your puppy’s diet may cause stomach upset and the dreaded puppy diarrhea. Talk to your veterinarian and your breeder about the best food for your puppy and when the optimal time to start transitioning to adult food will be, both based on their growth progress and their breed.

As the famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote, “First we eat. Then we do everything else.” This is true for our puppies, too!

Need help with your adorable new puppy? Training your dog can be challenging without expert help. That’s why we’re here to help you virtually, through AKC GoodDog! Helpline. This live telephone service connects you with a professional trainer who will offer unlimited, individualized advice on everything from house-training to behavioral issues.

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